Courtesy National Archives/Sharon Farmer

When Vickie Eslinger was blocked from a job as a page in the South Carolina Senate in 1971, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of her lawyers.

Ginsburg would later become known for her dissenting opinions, potent intellectual mileposts that she said “speak to a future age.” But long before she was writing for the colleagues that would follow her on the Supreme Court, she made a significant impact as a lawyer.

Speaking at a remembrance for the late justice in Columbia last week, Eslinger remembered her as a precise, persistent advocate for her personally and for equality in general.

“I did not realize at the time that I was talking to and meeting with the architect of an incremental legal strategy for achieving women’s rights and equality under the law,” said Eslinger, who now works as an attorney.

Ginsburg wasn’t the only lawyer on Eslinger’s case. Through a colleague at the American Civil Liberties Union, the team sought out “a bright and energetic young lawyer who graduated near the top of her class” named Jean Toal.

Toal was one of just three female attorneys in South Carolina who tried cases in court at that time, Ginsburg wrote in the foreword to Toal’s 2015 memoir.

Seventeen years later, in 1988, Toal became the first female justice on the South Carolina Supreme Court. Five years after that, Ginsburg was appointed to the United States Supreme Court, the second woman in its history.

Last week, on the steps of the Supreme Court in Columbia where she would eventually rise to chief justice, Toal remembered Ginsburg as focused in her work. Helping plan strategy for cases like Eslinger’s in South Carolina, alongside attorneys like Toal, Ginsburg was intentional about building the legal framework for gender equality.

“Her approach, beginning in 1970, to the completely unwinnable cases for gender equality that she took on was strategic, long-thinking and patient,” Toal said.

Eslinger’s case found its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals, where the judicial panel ruled in her favor in 1973, calling the state’s contrived case, “counter to modern law and modern social thinking.”

Of course, working with Eslinger was not the only time Ginsburg helped bend modern thinking.

“She had a major impact on all American women whether they know it or acknowledge it or not,” Eslinger said in Columbia last week.

Two months before Eslinger was decided, Ginsburg sat before the all-male Supreme Court in another equality case and quoted Sarah Grimke, the Charleston-native abolitionist and equal rights activist, who said, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

Toal said the line “was bolder than I had ever seen her do before.”

Fifty years later, Ginsburg’s Grimke quotation came to personify her persona as an effective dissenter. Today, Ginsburg’s opinions in cases like Lilly Ledbetter’s pay equity case have become law, all preceded by earlier work challenging prevailing thinking in places like South Carolina.

“It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way,’” Ginsburg told NPR’s Nina Totenberg in 2002. “The greatest dissents do become court opinions, and gradually, over time, their views become the dominant view.” 

Sam Spence is editor of Charleston City Paper.